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The Cartographer

Praniti Gulyani journeys back to Godhra riots in 2002 Gujarat with her unusual narrative.

There was something absolutely strange about our next door neighbours, yet whenever I’d bring this apparently important issue up on the dinner table, my parents would reprimand me almost instantly. And despite their strangeness, I could not resist venturing into their house whenever time would permit me. There was this inbuilt magnet within me, which automatically pulled me towards all things bizarre. My next-door neighbours were a man and a woman, though in my initial years with them, I could never, ever figure out if they were related, and most importantly, how they were related. The man was a pleasant character, who had a big billboard with the word ‘Mr Noor – Cartographer’ imprinted on it, and pasted outside his door.

Every evening, he’d begin to take me around the map that he’d drawn the night before. As I’d glance over his hunched shoulders and look at the yellowing chart paper clipped to the huge slab of wood which was propped up against his knees, I’d witness a labyrinth of squiggles and scribbles, struggling to navigate my way. Yet, when I’d tell him so, he’d look at me with condescending glares and tell me, that just because I could not see his countries and continents, that didn’t mean that they do not exist. And then, when I’d shake my head in disbelief and walk out of his room, he’d throw his head back and burst into song.

I’ve spent many afternoons thinking about him and his absolutely extraordinary ideas and conversations, yet I’ve never been able to put my finger on the essential truth of the situation. By day, he was a prim and proper businessman, his shirt ironed to such immense precision, that it would almost make his onlookers uneasy. He’d sit through his meetings with a poker-straight back, his fingers drumming a slow metallic tune on the keyboard of his laptop. And when the moon would wedge itself into the entangled embroidery of the sky like a piece of cold, grey stone, he’d burst into his apartment, change into his loose, light-hearted night clothes , draw out his board, and continue working on what he called the map of his world. His eyes would sparkle with a silvery flame which made me feel as though the gibbous moon was softly flickering within his being. After all, the wilderness, the insanity of the flame was such.

He has a wife, as I later learnt — a simple, Indian woman who’d usually be found clad in a colorful jeans and kurta, who’d spend her days in the attic reading and writing. Both of them were two absolutely different individuals or rather living in absolutely different worlds under a common roof.  But at least, each individual world had space to grow and flourish. A few days ago, before Diwali — our festival of lights, I decided to pay this curious duo a visit.

Being a writer at heart, I’ve always believed that within the soul of every writer, there is a net crusted with starlight and moonlight. It is within this net, ideas, dreams and thoughts get entangled, and from there, they gradually flow out on paper. The sky was bruised with deep purple shades that looked almost ugly and threatening. I rang the doorbell – once, twice as the resounding chime cut through the silence. Yet, it seemed as though no one was at home. Instead, the white door striped with green paint and decorated with glow in the dark stars was partly open, and a string of shadows seemed to be floating out, silently. . .

The silence engulfed with its intense. I could almost hear the scrape of shadows against the wooden boards of the floor. With bated breath, I tiptoed inside. My eyes took at the messy garden, the confusion of wild grass that seemed to hold a million secrets entangled within its interior darkness, and a winding flight of stairs that seemed to curve into the infinity of the rich, purple sky. Almost instinctively, I began the journey up that flight of stairs. It seemed as though the stairs were calling out to me, in soft, low pitched voices, as they silently led me to his room. For a moment, I felt as though the stairs of his room had transformed into this silent companion, who was taking me by the hand and leading me to a place which was probably my destination. But instead, this companion did not converse with me in loud, exuberant tones. Instead, he just looked me in the eye and assured me that whatever happens, all would definitely be well.

His room still had its traditional, everyday yellow light on, and as I stepped inside, the characteristic fragrance of lavender incense mingled with freshly brewed coffee filled my lungs. The bedcover was hastily spread into some kind of a mat, upon which a huge, wooden board was propped up. I moved closer to the board, and examined the confusion of squiggles and scribbles that he had created. Now that I was closer to his creations, I noticed how some of the scribbles were especially highlighted with deep orange and crimson shades, and the streaks of this bright colour, were so angry, so furious that it almost seemed as though a fire was roaring within their soul. The wall was covered with partly crumpled wallpaper and I could distinctly make out the words “Welcome back to fairyland” spelt in stumbling, blue ink. Amidst all this, there was a crumpled sheet of paper pasted to whatever portion of wall was remaining. With increased eagerness, I leaned forward to read the sloping, slanting handwriting . . .  .

Dear Baby,

I hope you read this letter sometime in your life. I know that after reading this letter, you will feel as though your mother is the worst mother in this entire world and possibly you will be happy that your mother is no more. But, I just want you to know that your mother has left behind a story which she wants you to read, absorb and experience. This story is very special to your mother, dear child. Because this story is about you, the only person that your mother could call her own. Always remember that every child is an extension of their mother, and oh, the pride it gives to me merely write this sentence . . .  that you are an extension of me!

As I write this, you are squirming in a partially broken cradle that a passerby was kind enough to lend me. So, it all began on a warm, winter’s afternoon towards the end of February, when your father and I were returning to our hometown in Gujarat, from the temple of Ayodhya. You were in my belly, alive and kicking, and the sudden jolts that you would bestow upon me would make my world jerk to a sudden halt, and you know, in that pause, I’d see all the goodness in this world, all the rainbows, all the sunshine, all the stars. That’s the effect you had on me, my love. And then, as our train neared our home, you began kicking even more, even harder. I felt as though you wanted to come out of me right away, and make the world your own. I held onto the metal bars of the train, my breath reduced to short, sharp wheezes. I felt as though you would tear my belly apart and just dash out of my being. Then, the waves of pain intensified to such a great extent, I was sure I could not take it anymore. God wanted you to be born in a train cabin, my dear child, and He sent people to ensure that His wish became a reality.

There was a midwife in the next cabin, and she heard my cries. The men were cleared out, and I was made to lie down on the seats. After what seemed like forever, she drew you out, and I still distinctly remember seeing you . . .  your little tomato-like face was lit by the rusty rays of sunlight that scraped the train window and your lips were full with the crimson moonlight of the evening crescent. My eyes brimmed over with tears, as you were placed in my arms. I wanted to hold you to my heart, cover your forehead with a crown of kisses, and whisper all the prayers I knew into your tiny ears.

And, as I drew you close, a resounding thud echoed around us. There were flames everywhere, furious, angry flames that rose up and seemed to touch the sky, setting the clouds aflame. The world that you had entered a few minutes ago had been calm and stable, my dear child, but that very world had somersaulted into a chaotic, fiery, murderous mess. Your father burst into the cabin, and pulled me out, enveloping me in his arms, wrapping you in his coat. The stench of burning cabins, burning bodies was everywhere, and I could almost taste it. I felt an upcoming surge of nausea in my throat, and my eyes brimmed over, clouded with hefty mountains of smoke. I was coughing, wheezing, trembling, and amidst all of this, I was trying to hold onto you with all my might. I felt as though I was about to drop you.

The flames smacked me on my cheek, dear baby, and I remember putting my fingers straight into the fire, just so that I could prop up your father’s coat over your writhing body. My dear baby, your first glimpses of the world were squiggles, scribbles of consuming flames, and you were in the absolute centre of this fiery labyrinth. This was your first experience in the world, and I am so sorry for this. As I write this, I am partially lying down on a hospital bed. My cheeks, my neck, and my lips are all burnt, and I know that I don’t have much time to live. I can almost taste my bruises, my burns, my wounds . . . 

But, I am so happy I could save you. There are burns on your tender cheeks, but they are like moles. I am sure that a well wisher will tell you that these are mere birthmarks. I hope you will believe them.

Maybe what happened with us, what happened with you will be splashed across newspapers, and maybe your insides cringe when you learn that you were such an essential part of such a gruesome incident, and that too, in the initial hours of your life. I don’t know what people will call this. Will they call it riots? Will they call it a war? Will they call it . . . I hate to write it here, baby, but will they call it a Hindu – Muslim conflict?

If they do, my child, I just want you to remember that the person who placed your little, crying body in this cradle was a lady in a black curtain. Not only that, she also rocked you and held you in her lap, while your mother’s wounds were being looked after. Always remember that your second mother was a lady in a black curtain. And, isn’t this so very beautiful, my child? Motherhood is an essence which surpasses all boundaries of religion. And you know, after my wounds and burns were filled to the best of the on the spot medical fraternities abilities, your second mother kissed you on your forehead and asked me to name you ‘Noor’. She told me that you have precious gemstones shimmering in your eyes. And, so right she was!

Also, no matter what happens, I hope you build your home in our Gujarat, or at least visit this place thrice a year. It is an absolutely beautiful place, and I wish that you embrace your hometown with the joy and love that your mother and your father both did. Perhaps, your vision will be clouded with unfortunate memories after you read my letter, but let me tell you – that you’ve been living in Gujarat since the moment you were a mere fetus in me. And I know that Gujarat will reach out to you and call out to you, her child, in her soft, melodious voice.  . . . .

Let me seal this letter with a kiss. I hope you can forgive me for what you went through. I wish that this mess of fire and flames, fiery squiggles and scribbles did not have to make up your first bit and first memory of this world. Do you know what, baby? There is positivity in everything around us. Even amidst this murderous confusion. Even amidst this chaos of death and agony.

At least you can live your life knowing that you had a mother who held you close.

If not a life full of joy and love, at least I could give you this thought . . . .

Yours,

Maa

I was absolutely taken aback. I backpedalled, and all the words that would fill the space called my heart with initial ease, had almost disappeared. My eyes brimmed over with tears, as a pulsating river of sobs began to throb in my throat. My gaze drifted back to his squiggles and scribbles, and I could almost hear him telling me about his map. He’d been mapping out his world, a world that he’d lived and experienced. He’d been born from the flames.

“It is a surprise to see you beside my map’’ a baritone voice called from behind me. I saw him standing behind me, a slight smile on his beautiful face. I couldn’t answer. My face was an entangled mess of emotions, tears and joy. With one look at me, he understood everything. He picked up his wooden slab, lifted his pencil, and continued sketching and painting with all his might. “I am no less than a cartographer. It’s just that normal cartographers map out countries and continents, and I put forth unseen worlds on paper….’’ he whispered, mostly to himself, partly to me. He began talking about different shades of orange, the perfect mixture of grey to create the smoke, but paused as he thought long and hard about the colours to use, to paint his mother. . .

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Praniti Gulyani is an aspiring poet from New Delhi. She enjoys debating, theatre and fiction . She believes in voicing her opinions through her stories and poems, and sees literature as the strongest and most beautiful form of protest. Her book ‘Sixteen Drops of Ink’ was published by The Impish Lass Publishing House in August 2020.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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